Saturday, October 25th, 2014...9:30 am

Poems on their birthdays

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Dylan Thomas, photograph by Angus McBean.This weekend involves at least two major 100th birthday parties: the first, on Saturday, is for the poet John Berryman, born on 25 October 1914. Celebrations will extend into Monday, appropriately, for Dylan Thomas, born on 27 October 1914.

Thomas and Berryman have unfortunately legendary personae (either could have been responsible for drinking 18 straight whiskeys and calling it a record); both gave terrific readings when well lit (a few of Berryman’s recordings, including a very early introduction to his 77 Dream Songs, can be heard through the Woodberry Poetry Room’s website, here). Their writing, however, is more interesting than their legends.

One particularly topical box contains the manuscripts for Thomas’s “Poem on his Birthday” (MS Eng 943.11). There are around a hundred inky sheets for this twelve-stanza, rhyme-dense poem; they are mottled with drawings, sums, and the addresses of restaurants. What is striking, however, is how methodical the drafts are: Thomas makes spindly, tilting columns of synonyms and of assonances; one motley inventory includes sirens, tidal, bible, eyeballs, kindness, spires, choirs, and vibrant. He repeatedly writes out the whole alphabet itself (a-b-c-d– and so on), as if to remind himself of available sonic combinations. The pages hold a strangely appealing mixture of step-by-step effort and immediate brilliance: some stanzas seem to have been in place from the first, but are copied dozens of times, with only single words changing.

While Houghton has only a few of Berryman’s manuscripts, several decades of letters to Robert Lowell (b MS Am 1905 [47-61]) show surprisingly good handwriting (it deteriorates over the years, a fact that is made vivid since Berryman stays with one kind of pen) and a tragicomic prose style: “I am still down on the bottom but thrashing” (8 Oct 1953). One letter is sent from the Hotel Chelsea, where Thomas had been staying before his final collapse; Berryman happened to move there just before, and apparently was the first person to learn of Thomas’s death. It fell to him, he wrote to Lowell, to tell other people, and to help Thomas’s widow after the memorial service: “thousands of people have wept on my shoulder recently—I weep on my own shoulder” (14 Nov 1953).

(Berryman and Thomas had met before, on a number of occasions; Thomas tried to get Berryman drunk before Berryman was to be introduced to W. B. Yeats.)

In the Poets’ Theatre archives are materials relating to Thomas’s plays, including a poster designed by Edward Gorey; Under Milk Wood was first read at the Theatre, in 1953. The New Directions records include years of correspondence and promotional clippings for both Thomas and Berryman; and Elizabeth Bishop’s library – also stored at Houghton – contains a sparsely, tantalizingly annotated copy of 77 Dream Songs.

[Thanks to Calista McRae, stacks assistant, for contributing this post.]

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